the cobbler who saved my shoes in Kolasin, Montenegro
A cap on my right tango shoe came off I discovered this afternoon, leaving the right heel wobbly and unstable. I danced about ten songs on it in the afternoon practica but I didn’t feel confident that I wouldn’t injure my ankle–and a sprained ankle is a big setback. I learned how much a sprained ankle can set you back from four months of physical therapy last year.
I asked one of the assistants in the Summer Tango Camp if there was a cobbler in town who fixed heels. The guy told me yes but only on Mondays and Tuesdays. It’s Thursday so that would be of no use. (What kind of work ethic is that? says this American.) This guy offered no more help and went back to staring at his phone.
I went walking in the streets of Kolasin, this mountain town in Montenegro (in the Balkans, just south of Croatia) where I have been staying for two weeks. I asked the nail salon woman if anyone in town fixed shoes. She did my eyebrows and pedicure so she seemed like a good local to start with. She pointed me two kilometers down the road. It’s very hot, and very sunny, and I did not feel like walking two kilometers in the midday sun. I went into a shoe shop thinking I would look for sneakers with smooth soles to pivot on but for some reason I felt inspired to ask them if they fixed heels.
“No, we only sell shoes,” the saleslady said, but she pointed me to a cobbler 100 meters away! A hundred meters–now that’s my kind of distance to walk in the afternoon heat! I found a lovely guy with a nondescript storefront who fixes shoes. They should be ready at 7:15 and if he does a good job I can keep dancing.
So reminded that it is all about persistence. Everything.
Getting these shoes fixed. Writing this memoir that I’ve been working on for the last five years. Looking for the life partner. Working on myself so I am capable of maintaining a healthy relationship and I’m happy whether or not I’m in one. Being a great coach. Running a business I’m proud of. Certainly publishing the Quirkyalone book and launching that movement took persistence–back in 2000 people in the publishing industry thought anyone with the capacity to enjoy alone time was a Ted Kaczynski living in a cabin.
When I work with my coaching clients too, persistence is usually the answer too. Epiphanies come and go. But the main thing, usually, is keep going. So keep going.
(Written during the Kolasin, Montenegro Summer Tango Camp. We didn’t actually camp, we stayed in hotels or houses. We–700 people–all came together for days and days of dancing, hiking, archery, tango learning, and meeting people from all over the world. An incredible event. You should come to the Summer Tango Camp + the Tango Adventure of course!)
Ibiza (pronounce it Ibi-tha), an island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean, was stop three on my Forever Young Tour of Europe and it’s another one of those places that a friend’s invitation brought me to. I never imagined visiting Ibiza. If I thought about Ibiza, I pictured massive, throbbing nightclubs. That image was not so off. While on the island I noticed that you could buy club tickets at ATMs and I learned that the RyanAir flights to the island could already be drunken scenes. Someone I met told me about a couple even having sex in a seat on the airplane. Luckily my flight from Brussels to Ibiza was relatively tame, and there’s another side to Ibiza beyond the Las Vegas-style party scene.
Ibiza has a party reputation but I knew that if Jody Day was inviting me to join her birthday celebration on Ibiza there must be another side to the island and there is. Jody is a woman on a mission very similar to mine. Jody started Gateway Women, a community and blog and wrote a book with the express purpose of helping women who don’t have children but who wanted to heal their grief and create a Plan B for a fulfilling life without kids. Our work overlaps since I help women own their self-worth and create fulfilling lives on their own terms with or without a man—quirkyalone or quirkytogether.
I reached out to Jody a couple of years ago after I landed on her website–when I checked out her work, I thought, whoah, this woman and I need to meet! We became friends over Skype. (You can see this interview Jody did with me about “motherhood ambivalence” a few years ago where we get into all kinds of interesting taboo topics that are rarely talked about.)
When I posted on Facebook that I would be coming to Europe in July and August 2017, Jody reached out to invite me to visit her in London or Ibiza for her birthday. I chose the birthday on Ibiza, because, hey, fun, right? So the very first time we met in person was at the airport when Jody picked me up. How amazing was that?!
Jody, her friends and I spent five days together to celebrate her birthday. We got to do things together that you just can’t do over Skype, like go shopping for Ibiza-style fashion, laze on the beach in our bikinis with coffee topped with whipped cream and spend a day on a sailboat to celebrate Jody’s birthday.
not sure it gets better than this . . .
on the boat!
I often had to pinch myself to believe that we were getting this chance to connect in person in such a beautiful place. One night we visited a side of the island where revelers from all over Europe come to go to nightclubs. Like Las Vegas, that side of Ibiza is not my scene, but it was fun to see from an anthropological, traveling perspective. My favorite moment there was sunset, when the bar played classical music to mark the dip of the sun below the horizon and the sun and party-seekers all ritualistically gather to clap for the transition from day to night.
watching the sunset watchers to classical music as the earth eats the sun
Luckily Ibiza also has a hippie, chill, new-agey side. The other side of Ibiza appears to be international, the kind of people who do yoga and also party–say, they would not shy away from the hallucinogenic tea of Ayahuasca for spiritual expansion. Ibiza is also home to Esvedra, a rock area that is said to have electromagnetic healing properties like Sedona.
Through Jody I got to meet some wonderful women—her friend Selina Ingram from Wales who has lived in San Francisco and Las Vegas, and now lives in Ibiza. Selina organizes fundraisers for low-income people on the VIP Ibiza and calls her group on Ibiza “phenomenal women.” (You’ll be hearing more about my own version of the PW later this year . . . you’ll see us talking about that in the video below.)
I wish you could just eavesdrop on all the conversations that Jody and I had over the five days we spent together at the beach, by the pool, over wine, and on a sailboat trip to celebrate her birthday. . .I’ll give you a few of the highlights as I remember them. We talked about everything from how being single for most of her forties helped Jody get to know herself and prepare herself to have the healthiest happiest relationship she’s been in now in her fifties. We talked about the lonely sides of solo travel and what one can make to do to make solo travel more social. We talked too about how women can be “overwarned” about the dangers of travel. For example, when Jody came to the US a year ago with the dream of driving Highway 1 up the coast of California, people warned her about terrible US drivers. I wondered what they were talking about. For me drivers in the US are fine. Jody didn’t let the overwarning stop her.
In my opinion, the real danger can be letting other people’s fear-based projections scare you out of enjoying and living your life.
Here’s a little video I did with Selina about the international, spiritually-seeking side of Ibiza while we were on a sailboat day trip to celebrate Jody’s birthday!
If you’re considering visiting Ibiza this video will give you a view of what you can find on the other side beyond the mainstream party scene.
I’ve been hearing about the Belgian city of Gent for seven years now since I met my friend Griet. Griet and I met in a hostel in Cali, Colombia, the world capital of salsa, in 2010. She asked me to go out to a tango club the week we met–and the rest is his(her)story. We recognized each other as kindred spirits and we wound up spending the next two months together taking tango classes, and then, we went to Buenos Aires together for two months to discover the “real stuff” of tango together in Argentina.
Through it all, over many coffees and bottles of wine, we talked about where we had come from and where we were going. We had both quit jobs that didn’t feel true to ourselves to open ourselves to what would come next. For me that was the fast-paced, screen-obsessed world of Silicon Valley that I felt was more bent on addicting people to make money through advertising than anything else (I felt then just as Tristan Harris does now–as he sounds the alarm that most technology companies are working to drain our attention spans for their benefit and not our own), and for Griet that was organizing activities at a community center. We were both single back then, and many times, Griet told me, “Just come to Gent. We’ll find you a nice Belgian man!” She also described Gent as very cute.
Griet changed the course of my life by bringing me into tango, and just by being herself, a woman of high vitality who always says things like, “If I’m really honest. . . ” From Griet I learned that a turned-on life based on things you really want to do and embody begins with the phrase, “If I’m really honest. . . ” So I knew, when I planned this trip, I would have to visit her in the famous Gent! It had been five years since our last meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. This would be our fourth country, and our third continent, since we met in Colombia, then in Argentina, then in the U.S. five years later, and now, in Belgium!
the reunion of sasha and griet in gent!
Much has changed in both of our lives. Now I live in Buenos Aires (not Silicon Valley) where I have a tango business combining the dance with coaching (I also coach people one-on-one on everything from career to sexuality and write). Griet settled down with a man, and has a two-year-old with another baby on the way after opening a vegetarian restaurant. So I was excited to go and see Griet again. I expected our reunion would be great. I had no idea what to expect of Gent.
Belgium itself is vague in the imagination. The headquarters for the EU, Belgium always seemed to me a small place sandwiched between France and the Netherlands with no big personality of its own. I knew Belgium was split in two parts: people speak French in the south and Flemish in the north. I mistakenly thought Flemish was a language of its own. In my week in Gent, I realized Flemish is actually Dutch–a revelation on its own! In a lot of ways much of Belgium seems quite similar to the Netherlands. But it’s a small country between two big countries. I can identify with small places, having grown up in Rhode Island. I know there’s a special power in being the underdog, overlooked place.
So Belgium?! Gent?! What was it all about? People don’t really think about Belgium much–you have your Belgian fries and your Belgian beer, but beyond that, what can you say about Belgium? I would soon find out with Griet.
gorgeous Gent on my first night
On our first night we went out for a bike ride around Gent after Griet’s son was asleep. Already I was feeling bowled over by the beauty of the residential streets where Griet lived. Very simple, row houses of different hues, and most of the houses had bikes parked in front of them. It was like an alternative universe where instead of cars parked outside (though there were some) you had bikes parked outside with locks built into the structure of the bikes and the tires. Often the bikes had baby seats on them. Some of them were bikes built for two. To an outsider Gent looked like it was going through a baby boom where all the parents rode around with small children on their bikes.
the bikes in gent!
We biked past canals on bike lanes (reminiscent of my trip to Amsterdam 20 years ago) on bikes with big bags on either side of the wheels in the back. All the bikes in Gent had these bags. Then we arrived downtown and to put it mildly I was stunned. The city center of Gent is a gem. I was expecting “cute” from Griet and Gent was actually beautiful. Maybe this is part of the Belgian personality: modesty. The French have their rakish charm, the Belgians are more humble. I find that small places often have that quality. The Uruguyans too are modest and approachable compared to Argentines. (Small place next to big country.)
Gent is not so small. The city has 250,000 people and the city center is large. Here’s what Lonely Planet says: “Here hides one of Europe’s finest panoramas of water, spires and centuries-old grand houses.” I would add to that, canals, bikes, cute people, and lots of biological (organic) cheese. Gent is a kind of fantasy of urban planning: small houses, bikes, small families on bikes, and tons of organic food everywhere. Seriously, if you are looking for a great, livable, more than cute city, Gent is the one.
biological cheese! bio, or biological, means organic in Europe. Gent abounds with cute bio places.
One our first night, we went to a bar that is famous for catering to travelers. I got a mojito, Griet got a virgin mojito since she’s pregnant. We started to catch up, finally getting to the man situation for me. Would I need Griet to find me that Belgian man? I told her about the latest in my love life and after that a guy a few tables over waved us over. He was an American, obviously–we had overheard him. He was from Dallas by way of New York and his mother had started a magazine in Belgium which somehow got him established in Gent. He had been living there for years and loved it.
The American gave us his critique of Gent: “mundane.” He thought life could be mundane in Gent because everyone was expected to settle down with a partner, buy a house, and pop out a kid or two. Of course that’s what Griet had done. She agreed with the critique–that life in Gent could be mundane.
I asked Griet if she thought I would feel isolated since I’m not married and don’t have children. She thought not.
I wasn’t sure if mundane was so bad when you have bikes, biological cheese, and beautiful canals.
Would it be mundane to live in Gent? So what is life in Gent like? For now I can’t really know, but here are some pictures to show you how fabulously cute–and beautiful–the city is.
Just one of the many bikes with child on board. So many versions of accommodating parent and child.
we ate them all!
Griet ate some Belgian fries too!
chairs at the cafe at voorhut, an old socialist hall transformed into a modern cultural center
this alluring bra shop got my attention in Paris. Soldes means Sales!
I couldn’t help but take notice of the store windows on my first morning in Belleville, the friendly neighborhood in Paris where I was staying for a week in early July.
The signs on the bra shop screamed, “GRANDES TAILLES, MEILLEURES PRIX”! “BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES”!
For a woman with an ample chest a good bra–and a good bra store–is hard to find.
With the promise of BIG SIZES, BEST PRICES, I felt a need, even an obligation, to enter. I actually even need bras. In Buenos Aires, where I’m living in 2017, there don’t seem to be any bra stores with sizes above DDD. I sometimes feel excluded when I pass lingerie stores in Buenos Aires and even a low-grade panic, what if all my bras break at once? Sometimes underwires pop out, or bras get damaged in the wash.
But the store looked mysterious. Signs covered the windows. The shop didn’t look like your average bra boutique. For days I delayed.
On Saturday after four days in the neighborhood I finally ventured outside with a mission: check out the bra store.
I opened the door and stepped inside, finding myself in a small, disorganized, square-shaped shop, the walls covered by little white cardboard boxes, presumably with bras inside, and bins full of merchandise on sale: bras and underwear. The shop was a mess, a far cry from the feminine, carefully decorated boutiques I’m used to in the States. It was not what you would call aesthetic.
A short bald man with a paunch belly stepped out from the back room and greeted me, “Bonjour.” He was the only one working at the shop, and there were no other customers. I froze. Who was this guy? Why was he the only one in the bra shop?
How could I exit gracefully? I didn’t want to be trapped in a bra store with this little bald pervert. When I go bra shopping in the States, a woman often comes into the dressing room with me to measure me and assess whether the bras fit. Would he want to go in the dressing room with me?
It was a long thirty seconds before I uttered the words, “I’m looking for a bra” in French. Those words took all my courage in the world in that moment to say.
“36G,” he said, naming my size.
“Yes,” I said, astonished that he had hit the mark. He was such a bra expert he could judge my size just from my appearance. It took me a long time, until years ago, to admit that I wasn’t a D and get a bra that actually fit properly.
He went in the back and pulled out two black and nude bras and handed them to me.
“Is that all you have in my size?” I asked. These bras looked matronly. A few years ago I made a commitment to myself, I will wear bras I find attractive and sexy, that don’t make me feel like a grandmother.
“Don’t worry, I have many options.” he said.
“I’m looking for a pretty bra,” I said in French. “Jolie.”
He smiled, “Pretty? You don’t think my bras are pretty? I only sell pretty bras!”
I started to laugh too, and then pointed out the styles I found appealing, including a peach and gray leopard print a mannequin was wearing.
32 euros! amazing sale price!
Another woman came in at this point, and he started to service her giving her options to try. She and I alternated using the sole small dressing room while he found bras for us. She seemed to love him. “This store is a gem of the neighborhood,” she said. “And he has great sales.”
She came out of the dressing room with her top on to get our opinion.
I gave her a thumbs up; so did he. I also tried on bras, then putting on my shirt to let them assess the bra fit.
In fact, I found an unusual abundance of options. I settled on two cute bras. The peach and grey one I adored and it was on sale for 32 euros, a fantastic price since the same brand would cost $80 in the U.S. The gray pinstriped one was 56 euros, an average price, still cheaper than what I paid in Oakland last year.
While he was ringing me up, I explained that I’m American but live in Buenos Aires where there are not many bra options for “full-sized” women. He laughed, “Oh, you’re American. You must stay in Buenos Aires far away from Trump!”
I left laughing and feeling uniquely uplifted (pun intended) by the encounter.
We question gendered assumptions about women’s roles. What about questioning roles for men? Can a man sell bras? Apparently.
I tried to ask if it was common for men to run bra shops in Paris but the question got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t get an answer. If I could go back in time, I would also ask, What made you open this shop? How did it happen that you’re a man running a bra shop?
Life is full of surprises when I breathe past my fear and find the courage to buy a bra from a man in Paris.
Here’s our guy!
Want to find the magical bra shop? Go looking on Rue de Belleville just a block from the Metro Jourdain in Paris.
Did I die and go to tango heaven Friday night? There are moments and there are perfect moments.
This perfect moment was almost too much–the Milonga Illegalle on the Passarelle (footbridge) Simone de Beauvoir over the Seine in Paris this past Friday night. Organized by a group of friends who bring wine, music, and linoleum to put over the footbridge to create a dance floor, the milonga is completely free, in the open air, and filled with that joyful, casual, playful spirit that I most like in tango.
The last time I was in Paris in 2009 I didn’t dance tango. Mostly I met new people through Couchsurfing. (I still recommend Couchsurfing as a great way to meet people if you are not part of the global tango cult–certainly I’ve met many fabulous people that way.)
So far for my Forever Young Tour 2017, tango is my new couchsurfing: the way I am connecting with new people and a place. If you get into tango you can also meet new people this way. In the end, tango is about so much more than tango. It’s a way to connect with people globally. For example, most cities have a website listing tango events. Here’s the clearinghouse for tango events in Paris.
You can find tango communities all over the world, in big cities and small towns. Traveling through tango really is a marvel because you get to meet and embrace so many people along the way.
I share with you here two more snapshots of the glory of dancing tango along the Seine in Paris.
If you come to Buenos Aires to do the Tango Adventure with us, you will be well prepared to do this kind of traveling.
I hear back from many women who come on the Tango Adventure that they are more likely to travel or go out alone after the experience with us. Courage begets more courage. You learn you are capable of these adventures, and less fearful in all the ways that the media and society at large tells us to be afraid. Especially as a solo woman traveler.
New experiment. I’m starting my Forever Young European tour this week. When I was leaving Rhode Island earlier this week to come to Paris, my mother remarked, “It’s just like you’re going off for two months in Europe after college!” I said, “That’s true!” I traveled alone in Europe for two months after college graduation, and that trip came in between my time in New York City and my time in San Francisco. Twenty years later, I’m going to Europe again for two months. So perhaps this will be a pattern, every twenty years (or let’s make that every five or ten years) I will do two months in Europe and call it the Forever Young Tour.
During my 2017 Forever Young Tour, I’m going to do a recap on the first 24 hours in a new place, or a place where I have visited before. I’ve heard it said that there are two ways of doing travel writing: you can write about a place from deep knowledge, or you can capture your snap impressions. I’m going to experiment with capturing the first impressions, with all humility and acknowledgment that they are the impressions of a first day in a new place. It’s not the same as writing about a place where you have lived for a long time–see, for example, this post from a woman who moved to Mexico with her husband who had been deported from the US. Still, there’s an aliveness and freshness to new eyes that older, more inured eyes can’t compete with. So here’s my contribution.
So my first 24 hours in Paris! Impressions! I used to think of Paris as bourgeois and stuffy but my overall impression after 24 hours is a freewheeling, artsy, super-diverse city with a lot of joy for living. I got that idea last time when I met a bunch of Parisians who complained about coldness, but I haven’t experienced that this time. People seem very warm. Maybe it’s the weather. I was here in December last time, now it’s steamy July.
Here’s a little spontaneous video I made after arriving, on the first day:
More globalized than ever
I arrived at 6 am at Charles de Gaulle on July 4 and took the RER train then the metro into my airbnb in the 19th arrondissement. On the RER train we shot through the suburbs. I had stayed in the suburbs one night last time I was here in 2009 with a Tunisian friend made from Couchsurfing, and I’ve read enough about Paris to know that the suburbs are where people from former French colonies have felt isolated and cut off from economic opportunity. The challenges of a post-colonial world are real. All that said, I have to say, Paris felt remarkably diverse and peaceful on the train on the way in. Over my first 24 hours I saw a lot of cultural and racial mixing in the cafes near my apartment in the Metro Jourdain area, a lot of interracial friendships too (how can I tell the women were friends? You can just tell). So while I can’t pretend to know the ins and outs of post-colonial racial mixing in Paris, I will say, I have never seen a city with more people in hijabs, or women in saris, or people of all races–and everyone basically seems to get along on the buses and metros. Fascinant. Oakland is the only other place where I have lived and seen such mixing. Cities like New York are diverse, but I never really felt that people mixed.
I’m staying in the perfect neighborhood
I am staying in a neighborhood called Belleville near Metro Jourdain and the people seem very mixed to me.
I am in love with the idea of people sitting drinking beer, coffee, wine.
paris cafe near metro jourdain
Wandering Paris is Parisgasmic.
During the first 24 hours, I needed to sleep, but by day two I could start to wander and it came back to me: I love being a flaneur in a new city. A flaneur is the solitary observer who wanders the streets and observes the crowd, a term coined by Baudelaire in Paris in the 19th century. There is no city where it’s more intoxicating to be a flaneur than Paris. Paris is beautiful. It is an aesthetic experience to walk the streets, to look at the way the light hits the buildings, to walk along the Seine. I don’t see any need to do touristy things in Paris. All I have to do is walk the streets and magic will come. Today I went looking for this delightful restaurant and cafe where you can literally work on your laptop inside a bathtub or on a bed! On the way I stumbled on the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Later my friend Alexa said it’s the most beautiful park in Paris. There’s always something beautiful around the corner.
Near Metro Jourdain
The fashion feels more expressive than formulaic
I used to think there was a Parisian uniform that was neat and trim and always involved a scarf. I used to think I could never blend in Paris and I would always stick out as a gauche American. I feel more breathing room in the fashion now. The fashion is still expressive, fun, unique, but the fashion seems more diverse and expressive. My guess is that’s because there’s so much global influence now there appear to be more ways to be French.
Jumping into the global tango culture
One of the best parts about being a tango dancer is that you always have somewhere to go at night when you visit a new city. On my first day, I slept six hours so I could get up my energy to go out and meet Sabine, who had come on a Tango Adventure in March in Buenos Aires. Sabine sent me an email two months ago inviting me me to meet her at a milonga on the Seine. Sabine lives in DC but she is from France and happened to be visiting. My friend Alexa was also planning to go, so we went and met up with Sabine and Senami, who had both come on the March Tango Adventure. How magical it was to dance tango on the Seine on July 4. Tango is a global culture and it’s always fascinating to plug in in a new place.
When I left the milonga the metro had already closed so I had to figure out a way to get home. A taxi was an option but maybe it would be very expensive. Some new French friends guided me to the bus stop and we found another French woman who agreed to tell me the stop to get off at, Gambetta. I didn’t have a European chip yet for my phone, so I had no GPS. But there’s nothing like new friends to be your own personal GPS. That’s part of the magic of traveling alone, especially as a woman traveling alone. People come out of the woodwork to help you along get where you need to go. (It’s easy to forget this when fears come up about traveling alone, but strangers really do help out.)
Next door to the cafe-barge hosting the milonga there was a big USA party to celebrate the Fourth of July too. (Don’t worry about traveling in the Trump era! Generally people know how to separate people from their leaders.)
Walking along the Seine looking for the milonga. La vie est belle!
Paris milonga on the Seine on a cafe-barge (the night I arrived!)
Senami and Sabine joined me in Buenos Aires for a Tango Adventure. Amazingly we met up in Paris on the day I arrived at a milonga.
The food is still a delight, even as a celiac
During the first 24 hours I have a special challenge in any new country: eating. I was diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010 a year after my last trip to Paris. This means I need to make sure that my food is gluten-free with no traces of contamination. We’re the people who have to take gluten very seriously. Undaunted, however, I had read up on eating gluten-free in Paris and knew it had gotten better for celiacs over the last five years.
On my first day, I went in to this lovely cafe two blocks from my apartment to explain my needs and ask if they had anything gluten-free. “Nothing sans gluten,” the bar man said. “A salad?” I asked. I explained to them what it means to do gluten-free. They said sure, they could do a salad. The waitress brought the salad out with a piece of toast on the plate. Of course I had to say no. She snatched the toast away thinking this would be sufficient and I had to say no again. A piece of toast on my salad plate is clear cross-contamination. (All a celiac needs to activate the disease is 20 parts per million of gluten–a miniscule amount.) “I’m a celiac, it’s a rule,” I explained in French. “Un regle.” I asked her if she would go back to the kitchen staff to explain. She came back and said they would replace the salad, this time being careful, washing their hands and everything.
Here was the poached salmon salad that came back. it was gorgeous and delightful. I ate all of it.
poached salmon salad–gluten-free.
Update: My French friend Eric read this post and told me, actually Belleville the neighborhood where I am staying is one of the most “popular” (meaning down-to-earth, mixed, and racially mixed) neighborhoods in Paris, and that many of the other arrondissements feel like rich, white ghettoes to him where even he, being white, feels uncomfortable. Some people like that, and some people don’t. So my sense of a different Paris was confirmed. f you want that friendly mixed feel you should try staying in Belleville, or at least visiting it.
“You’re not getting the lead,” he tells me. Gruff, mid-fifties, beady eyes, a ponytail dwindling halfway down his back, Ponytail Man chose me as his partner for this advanced tango class at Floreal, a traditional milonga in Buenos Aires. It’s nice to be chosen, but now I’m not sure. Two famous teachers, los Totis, are teaching an unusual sequence. We’ve danced three songs and aren’t getting it. (A milonga, for those who do not dance, is the sacred place where where people gather to dance tango.)
“You have a vicio (a bad habit) with your elbow that is breaking the lead,” he barks, clearly blaming me. I narrow my eyes and stay silent to keep the peace.
After two songs I escape his clutches and try the move with the teacher. No problem. I try the sequence with another man, a sweet twentysomething in a gray suit with a pink handkerchief who is trying with all the women in the room. With him the move works fluidly.
Ratty Ponytail Man, standing in the corner, beckons me to try again.
“I will try if it’s in the spirit of being partners,” I tell him. “I got it fine with the others.” This time I’m not letting him walk all over me.
Time stops, and the room goes fuzzy.
“You don’t want me to tell you things?” he says, his eyes incredulous. “You need to know you are in tango and tango is machista. Tango is the creation of men, that’s the way it is and you need to accept it, you are in Buenos Aires.” He looks around the room, as if I don’t know where I am. “You can go to milongas with the pibes (boys) where it’s 50-50 but in a traditional milonga it’s machista and that’s the way it is.”
To be “macho” could be a male aspiration, to be manly, strong, protective, and even nurturing. But in Argentina machista has come to mean “chauvinist,” a male desire for control and domination.
“So what does that mean? I don’t get a voice?” I ask in disbelief.
“If you want to become a professional dancer then you can have something to say. You need to work on your turns.”
“Oh, right. My turns. So I need to be a professional to say something. I’m here to enjoy myself.”
He extends his hand to me. Does he really think I’m going to dance with him now? Is blatant sexism attractive to other women?
“You tire me. I’m tired,” I say.
He stalks off. I sink into a chair on the periphery and watch him invite his new partner. . . err, victim. His bluntness shocks me. This is a man’s world so shut up and accept it? Really? I grew up in Rhode Island in the 80s listening to Annie and Free to Be You and Me, believing that the world belonged equally to all of us.
The milonga starts. I join three friends over a bottle of Malbec. My three friends and I met in 2012 at Dinzel Studio, a hippie tango school that teaches the dance as a dialogue between equals. I tell them about Ponytail’s comments as I pour myself a glass of wine.
Elyse, a French physicist who switched careers to become a tango teacher, says, “You should have recorded it. It’s such a caricature.”
Linda, a physical therapist from Idaho, tells me, “He’s a jerk, let it go.”
I can’t seem to let it go. I change out of my tango shoes and into street shoes and on the way out I pass the male Toti smoking a cigarette in the vestibule. I tell him what happened.
He says, “You shouldn’t put up with that.”
“I tried and got a machista speech.”
“Mala suerte (bad luck),” he says with sympathetic eyes that say, “Move on.”
Easy for you to say, dude, I think, as I head out to find a cab. Perhaps I’m being dramatic. Perhaps not. Perhaps this is a moment of seeing reality for what it is. Tango reflects society, and brings up many of the familiar struggles of womanhood. The older I get, the more clearly I see that sexism shapes our world. I didn’t notice sexism as much when I was younger and the beneficiary of youth’s privileges. But now I can’t deny that arrogant men will mansplain on the dance floor and there’s far more pressure on women to look decorative, young and thin than there is on men.
Why would I accept sexist rules in the world I love? I flag down a cab and get in. These are my spinning thoughts on the cab ride home, through Buenos Aires’ graffiti- and street-art-marked streets of European buildings and Latin chaos. You’re supposed to be a good girl and smile and pretend that sexism doesn’t exist. I don’t feel like pretending. When I get home I slam the cab door.
Is tango macho?
The next day I call Miles on Skype. Miles is my Argentine ex, and ever since we broke up, he’s remained a close friend and interpreter of Argentine culture and men. Miles is a sensitive Argentine man, intellectual, kind, very unlike the stereotype of the arrogant Porteño (resident of Buenos Aires). Back when we were getting to know each other in 2013, Miles would come over to drink mate–the ultimate Argentine ritual, a way of relaxing and doing nothing together–and listen to tango songs. He shared explicitly macho songs with me, like the classic “Porque Canto Asi,” “Why I Sing as I Do.” The lyrics radiate macho feeling:
And I was made in tangos
Because … Because tango is macho!
Because tango is strong!
It has something of life,
It has something of death.
After playing that song for me, Miles asked me, “How can you be a feminist and like tango?”
I laughed. Why not? “Of course I can,” I said. “Feminism is about freedom. It’s about seeing women as human beings. A feminist can enjoy dancing.”
Everyone who knows me knows I am a feminist. I have never hesitated to use the f-word to describe myself; it’s always seemed like the most common-sense thing in the world. I’m a woman, why wouldn’t I support women?
Everyone who knows me also knows I love tango. I rearranged my life to live in Buenos Aires, the birthplace of tango, back in 2012.
Nothing has ever given me more mind-cleansing pleasure (or revelation) than tango. I like being seen as a woman. and I don’t mean dresses or high heels. I mean being a woman in the deepest sense: embodying femininity, receiving a masculine energy and sending something feminine back. I love being embraced by men with puffed-out chests that invite me to puff my chest out too. I enjoy the gender play: being a woman and dancing with a man, or even, being a woman and dancing with a woman who adopts the masculine, assertive lead role.
As a tango follower, I close my eyes, surrender to the music and the moment and let go in a way that I don’t do in any other part of my life. Tango has also made me taller. In six years, tango molded me into a queen in a way no therapy or physical therapy ever could have. Tango trained me to stand up straight with a more powerful physical presence.
Why should there be any contradiction at all between tango and feminist? Tango is a lead-follow dance. Men lead. Women follow.
Do we see the dance as a dance of equals?
Do men see followers as equals?
Do we women see ourselves as equals?
After last night with Ponytail, I wonder if Miles was right. I tell him the story of Ponytail and now it’s Miles’s turn to laugh.
“Obviously your feminism is stronger than your love for tango.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I refuse to stay in an environment that degrades me.”
“Tango is very macho,” he said. “And Buenos Aires tango is more macho.”
“I know,” I said.
What am I supposed to do, stop dancing? If we’re honest, tango in Buenos Aires is not the only male-dominated arena. What about Congress, Uber, Fox-news, or the streets? If most of the world is male-dominated, how do women keep dancing within it?
A couple at Bar Laureles, a nostalgic tango restaurant in Buenos AIres
Ponytail man was right about one thing. Tango’s origins are definitely history: the dance was born primarily among men. Tango’s roots come from Africa, the Caribbean, and the pampas (the plains of Argentina), but most agree that the dance crystallized in Buenos Aires and Rosario, Argentina and Uruguay, in port cities among waves of immigration from Europe in the late 19th century.
In the late 19th century Buenos Aires was male-dominant. More men than women sailed from Spain and Italy to Argentina, hoping to make their fortune and return to Europe. Most stayed in Argentina and Uruguay, where there were few women. Men practiced tango together in crowded conventillos (like the teeming tenements on New York’s Lower East Side) with the hope of getting good enough to dance with a woman. Tango was the lonely man’s chance to embrace a woman. Some would say that tango was always an homage to the woman, to the mother, to the desire for a hug.
Fast forward 120 years. Tango went dark under Argentina’s repressive dictatorship and bounced back going global in Europe, the U.S., and Asia in the 90s. The gender situation has reversed. Globally and in Buenos Aires, more women than men dance.
Even though women are now the majority in tango a macho vibe persists. Sexism dies hard out of respect for the traditional codes.
The only way for a woman to escape the sexism seems to be to learn to lead. A leader, male or female, can ask anyone to dance. Women leaders are now enjoying an in-vogue status in Buenos Aires where they had to fight for respect in the past. I enjoy leading. Dancing the lead allows me to fully express my musicality. While following taught me about surrendering to the moment and pleasure, leading helps me develop qualities of decisiveness and assertion.
But my first love is undeniably following.
Finding myself as a follower
But I can’t help but ask, if tango is macho, or machista, does the feminine energy in the follower role get a fifty percent equal role in the dance?
I have been to many tango classes where tango teachers teach passivity in the female role. I’ll never forget the women’s technique class I took from a well-known Argentine woman teacher who told a group of women, “Technique is all you need. You don’t need any style. If you had a style, that would actually hurt because you would be less malleable.” I wondered if she thought a woman’s job was to be malleable off the dance floor as well as on it. She was married to her dance partner. I thought of a woman adopting all the preferences and personality of her husband. You like that wine, I love that wine. You love that neighborhood, I love that neighborhood. She was a beautiful dancer but there was something generic about her dance. It was technically perfect but soulless. Boring. She seemed too malleable.
I love the female role in tango. But I also want a voice. I want to be a full partner, not a sexy rag doll being danced by a man. Following is boring if don’t make it your own. I want to feel like I’m dancing.
After five years of dancing, my discontent with boring following welled up within me. I decided to do something about it by August 2015. I stop taking classes from that woman and return to DNI, a tango school founded by Dana Frigoli, a woman who teaches an active female role based in technical precision. If you want to be a strong woman, you need the inspiration of other strong women.
When truly expressive women dance there is a higher order to the game. You speak with your own voice in your follower response; you make your personality apparent. This is the active follower who speaks.
I book a lesson with Vicky Cutillo, a teacher who often wears cargo pants and Converse sneakers. She doesn’t seem worried about dressing traditionally hot (after all, there’s nothing less sexy than feeling obliged to dress sexy) and when she gives performances with her husband Jose, you can see her daring and teasing him before connecting with him. She’s ridiculously sexy, never boring.
“What do you want to learn today?” Vicky asks as she queues up songs on her iPod.
“Aesthetics. I want to dance more beautifully. Expression.”
“Bueníssimo,” she says with a sparkle of excitement. “Great. Learning aesthetics is the most exciting part of the learning process.”
We dance two songs. The lesson takes an unexpected turn. “The first thing to learn is how to brake the man,” Vicky explains. “This is how you show him that it’s your time. You squeeze his hand this way, at the same time grip his back put energy into your own back muscles to say, STOP. This is my moment.” I find this fascinating, and I listen to her carefully.
“It’s also important to be aware of the music at the same time,” she explains, “because you are choosing to decorate a moment. You don’t randomly stop your partner at a moment when it doesn’t make sense.”
“Tomar espacio?” I ask. “To take up space?” I expected her to teach me technical things about how to make embellishments with my feet, but she is teaching me the technique of the follower’s assertion within the couple. To make our voices heard, we have to make space for them.
“Yes, to take up space.” Vicky looks delighted that I had used these words, as if she knows there is a feminist trajectory in learning tango. A beginner starts out simply following, but as you advance you learn how to express yourself too within the lead-follow dynamic.
Tango already had unlocked so many things for me: the ability to live in the moment, let go, stop thinking, feel pleasure and stand up straighter. But this lesson felt like the cherry on top of all the other lessons. In a very physical way, tango was teaching me how to shine as a woman in a male-led dance. I could use my body to speak. To use braking body language, “Mi amor, mi vida, this is my time.”
Tango lessons have always translated for me as a reference point for life off the dance floor. The world de facto tells women to take up less space: to cross our legs while men spread theirs on the subway; to diet; to smile when a man interrupts us; to slouch to make ourselves invisible on the street. Tango, by contrast, teaches a woman to be bigger. To stand tall and proud in the encounter with a man.
When I learn something through my body I remember it. Movement anchors the lesson throughout my whole body, not just in my head.
The true meaning of “it takes two to tango”
For my final session that month, I booked a session with JuanPi, one of my favorite teachers. “What do you want from this class?” he asks. “Expression,” I say. “I’m working on being more expressive.”
After the first few dances, JuanPi says, “Show me you. Be more you. I don’t feel you. You need to have confidence that what you are doing is good. You will be playing a game to see who likes that and who doesn’t. What would you say to those men who don’t want it?”
“I’m a person, too,” I say, suppressing a laugh.
The music comes on, a strong beat from Di Sarli’s “Champagne Tango.” JuanPi wraps me in an embrace and I do the same. He walks and pivots slowly, giving me the time to feel the music. I make rhythmic taps with my feet. I pause when I feel the music calls for it to heighten the drama in our connection. I caress my own leg and his with my calf and heel. Between dances we slap five. We feel like a team. JuanPi is clearly still leading, but he’s also listening—and following me. I feel a joy in tango that I had not felt in a long time because I feel like I am actually dancing
After giving JuanPi multiple hugs at the end of our lesson, I bounce down the streets of Almagro, one of the Buenos Aires’ traditional tango neighborhoods to an antique Café Notable, Nostalgia. We took a video of our final songs. I order a cortado (coffee with a bit of milk) and after I order, I press play. I am eager to see if the dance looks as it felt. In the video, I see something I have never seen from myself before: a dialogue, a woman contributing half of the conversation. Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
Suddenly, the cliché “it takes two to tango” makes sense in a new way. The dance is better with two fully formed individuals adding their own flourishes, pauses, interjections. You don’t follow, you dance; one person inspires the other.
It’s been a year since the run-in with Ponytail. I haven’t left the milongas. I am clear about what I’m dealing with. When I go out to dance tango, I look for the men who want equal participation from women and screen out those who do not. I study only with teachers who value the female role.
Miles and I continue to talk about the uphill battle of changing a machista culture. He warns me not to have any illusions. I don’t. The macho nature of Porteño tango culture is strong. I spend time in other communities like yoga and tantra where people share more explicitly feminist values.
Men like Ponytail are still out there, as are women who want to follow passively, as are men who find those women dancers boring. What I’ve discovered as a feminist in tango is that male allies are critical. If I dance as an active follower with someone who wants passivity, we will be in a battle of the sexes. When I dance with a man who welcomes equal participation, we can dance.
Ponytail and much of his generation will never get it. But culture evolves as the dance evolves. It’s also important to work on how I see myself. It’s easy to fall into my own potholes of inferiority. Sometimes, when I’m getting ready to dance, after I spray on my perfume, I give myself a one-sentence pep talk, “I will see myself as an equal.” Then I go out to dance.
Note: To go deep into the gender dynamics of traditional tango invitation, watch the brilliant feminist anthropologist Marta E. Savigliano break down the “active passivity” of the milonguera in this video on the Wallflower and the Femme Fatale.
a photo from the day I married myself in the Japanese Gardens of Buenos Aires
Marriage itself is evolving: First we had straight marriage as business arrangement, then we had the soulmate marriage, gay marriage, and now self-marriage. Two years ago the media got fascinated with the mini-trend of self-marriage. Since then I have emerged as one of the foremost experts on self-marriage. Certainly not anything I ever predicted I would be when people asked me what I wanted to be when I was in high school. I’ve been quoted in Cosmopolitan, Self, Vice, ATTN, New York Times, and on Nightline/ABC . I’ve given a million soundbites in the media about why women are saying I do to themselves, but I never really feel like I’m getting at the essence of why—at least for me. It’s easier to talk about the societal trends, but the societal trends are not as deeply true as the personal reasons. So I figured, I would tell my own self-marriage story in the truest way possible. The universal can be found in the particular and the particular is rarely found in a media soundbite. So here goes.
It still startles me to see in print: I married myself. It seems odd. It is odd. I never would have predicted that I would marry myself even though I was an early observer of the self-marriage trend.
Quirkyalone is a word I created to describe people who prefer to be single rather than settle. When I first heard about women marrying themselves, I thought it sounded like a way to ritualize the core principles of being quirkyalone: to love yourself and not settle in your relationship to yourself or with another person. I interviewed two Bay Area artists Remi Rubel and Aya de Leon who had married themselves. Remi and Aya drew on traditional wedding rituals: shower, wedding, reception, and honeymoon. They both went on to marry men and considered the self-marriage foundational, to help them not lose touch with their own needs within marriage.
At the time, I was 30. The self-marriage concept impressed me but I certainly never expected to do it myself. They had worn white wedding dresses and declared their love to themselves in front of an audience of friends. I could not imagine making vows to myself in such a spectacle. Really? I’m a relatively private native New Englander at the core: a writer, and a coach, not a performance artist. Couldn’t you love yourself privately without declaring your self-love publicly?
At 39, my feelings about self-marriage changed
Ten years later, why did I warm to the idea of marrying myself? There were many reasons, in retrospect, that map with the reasons more women are turning to this latest initially odd-sounding twist on marriage. As Rebecca Traister has pointed out in her book All the Single Ladies, women are not consciously rejecting marriage so much as they have more options to not settle out of economic obligation and social pressure. Today only 20 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 are married, compared to 60 percent in 1960. According to the Pew Research Center, millenials are much more likely than older adults to say society is just as well off if people have priorities other than marriage and children.
But it’s not as if I wasn’t looking for a partner. Like increasing numbers of women I hadn’t find a man to marry between 30 and 40. When I was in my twenties, I thought he was magically going to appear when I was 30. But he hadn’t. And he still hadn’t. Was that because I wasn’t ready? Was it bad luck? Who knows?
Many friends had married. We feted them with gifts, toasts, and photo slideshows celebrating them from infancy on. I didn’t begrudge them these celebrations, but when you get to 40 and haven’t had a wedding, you realize marriage is the only coming-of-age ritual our society provides. Some would call all that marital attention “couple privilege.” Where’s the coming-of-age ritual for me, or any adult, if she hasn’t found a spouse or doesn’t want to marry?
The pressure of the so-called “expiration date” had been weighing me too. All that pressure I felt at 30 or 35: that was nothing in comparison to the inner panic about being single at 40. I knew it was crazy to worry about whether men would still want to date me when I was no longer thirty-something, but I worried.
Something even deeper was tugging me to marry myself that was I wasn’t even able to fully articulate my reasons at the beginning. I just had the impulse. There is a quote from the memoirist Rayya Elias that I like: “The truth has legs; it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will always be the truth. Since that’s where you’re gonna end up anyway, you might as well just start there.”
I like the idea of starting with the truth, but sometimes you don’t know the truth when you start. You can only grope toward the truth via instinct and the actual living.
But how to do it?
I wanted to marry myself with no clue on how to proceed. Even though I had written about self-marriage, I felt lost. It’s not like there is a set of instructions to follow handed down by generations. There is no self-wedding industry. (Or if there is one, it’s tiny.)
When in doubt, I turn to Google. I did a search on “self-marriage” and that led me to Dominique Youkhehpaz, a “self-marriage minister and counselor” with a B.A. from Stanford University in Cultural and Social Anthropology with a focus in Love, Ritual, and Religion. Dominique married herself in 2008 at 22 and helped others do the same since. I emailed her and we set up a time to talk.
Dominique explained the introspective, creative nature of self-marriage: “You can’t marry yourself without thinking about it deeply.” That was reassuring; I was on the right track if I needed time to find answers. She gave me examples: a Polish woman took 30 days to celebrate herself for 30th birthday. A guy married himself in a musical in his backyard. Another woman married herself alone in her bedroom with a candlelit ceremony. Talking to Dominique brought a huge feeling of relief; I could marry myself my own way. No white wedding dress or big audience required.
Dominique underscored the power of ritual, emphasizing that I could create my own ritual, private or public. “Ritual in itself has the power of transformation,” she said, and that made sense. I also thought, ritual somehow seals the deal. I would create a ritual. I hung up the phone feeling relieved, but like I had a gigantic creative question to answer: how was I going to marry myself in a way that felt true to me?
Who to tell
I also didn’t know whom to tell. Telling even my closest friends felt vulnerable. I didn’t know anyone else who had married herself, and the act of self-marriage still seemed unusual, verging on pathetic. Let’s get real: most of my friends had married men, and I was talking about marrying myself?
Later I would talk about my self-wedding ring at parties in Buenos Aires and a woman ten years my junior would ask me, “Why did you marry yourself and not the earth?” Suffice to way that kind of conversation was not happening for me in the Bay Area in 2014.
I texted my best friend my intention: “I’m going to marry myself, will you help?” Jenny had married an alien in a performance art ceremony in the 90s in which I was a bridesmaid, so I’m not sure why I was worried about telling her. But now Jenny had a partner. Her alien wedding was art, my self-wedding was sincere. She responded supportively.
Who knows why, I told my mother. Why did I think my practical New England mother, who has been married most of her life, would understand self-marriage? When I told my mother, “I think I’m going to marry myself for my fortieth birthday,” she laughed and said, “Whatever’s good for you is good by me.” I was sure she was thinking, My nutty California daughter. I wonder if she will ever get married to a man?
I also told the guy I was dating. He was the closest I had to a boyfriend at that time. He said, “Sure if you want to jump out of a cake for your birthday I will support you.” I took a sip of my wine and said nothing, feeling inwardly self-righteous, and thinking, You don’t get it. Marrying myself is not nothing like me jumping out of a cake! Marrying myself is about taking a stand for my own self-worth and the self-worth of all women, married or not. I decided to tell fewer people.
There was one last person I told in those quaking moments, right before I turned 40: my best friend in Buenos Aires, Alexandra. (Though I lived in Oakland, California I was spending time in Buenos Aires because of my Tango Adventure business.)
“I think I’m going to marry myself,” I told her in Spanish on Skype. Ale is Colombian, but we met in Argentina through tango.
“I married myself!” she said. What a surprise. Ale had married herself already! She told me the story that day.
She had woken up from an anxiety dream. The dream said, “You’re past 30, who are you going to marry? Who are you going to marry? You better do it now.” She decided the answer to the expiration date anxiety was: I will marry myself. She went to a fair that Sunday and bought a ring, declared herself married and instantly felt calmer.
A friend told her, “This is good but don’t close yourself off from others.” She said, “Of course.” Ale felt the same way as I did: self-marriage is something you do to honor yourself, and to calm the panic about not being married in a society that still puts pressure on women to marry by a certain age, but it doesn’t shut off relationship possibilities.
When Ale told me her story I felt like I was stepping into a small sisterhood: the sisterhood of women who had married themselves. I wasn’t so alone in this anymore.
A time of reflection
I had started therapy a year before I decided to marry myself in order to look at any blocks in my own capacity for intimacy and commitment. For a person who wanted to marry herself, I’ve actually been focused on my relationships. I had struggled in a lot of my romantic relationships with abandonment fears, and I had what I would later call “single shame”—a fear that none of my long-term relationships had been long enough, and thus, no one was going to want to be with me.
There had been one therapy session when my therapist looked at me and said, “There’s a lot of shame here.” That had been a hard thing to hear because it was true. Even though I have professionally taken a role as an author and coach who helps others with their shame about being single I was still plagued by a lot of those demons myself. Later I would realize that a lot of that fear came from the fact that I held a secret for twelve years of my childhood: a secret about having been sexually abused once. The secret itself had left a deep mark on my psyche. The secret had imprinted corrosive messages: if you ever tell anyone the truth they will leave you.
My self-marriage, it seemed to me, was about working through that shame, owning all of me, and learning how to be vulnerable enough to share my feelings and my full story. As Brene Brown teaches in her TED Talk on vulnerability, the path to joy and connection runs through sharing the stuff that’s hard to share. Sharing that stuff brings us closer. Somehow I felt that marrying myself would help me get closer with others.
Two questions came out of that therapy session; “What are you marrying?” and “Why call this marriage rather than a self-love ritual?”
I didn’t have the answers to those questions at the time but I kept them with me. I started reading about what Jung calls “the shadow,” the parts that we disown in ourselves. My therapist defined “the shadow” as the stuff you don’t walk to talk about even in therapy. I started to think I would marry my light—the things about me that are fantastic (I can be cheerful, fun, brilliant, helpful, caring) and the dark that I hide from others (I can be moody, messy, angry, bitter, negative, revenge-prone, and neurotic). I wanted my ritual to say: you are lovable, all of you. Even the parts you find difficult.
For my entire life people have told me I am very hard on myself. So I thought, marrying myself would help me with self-acceptance. The essence of love is acceptance.
As far as why call it marriage, I decided that was a semantic strategy. We consider marriage to be deep and important. So is loving yourself. If you called self-marriage a self-love ritual, the ritual wouldn’t have the same weight or importance.
the charms we found at the gas station
So then how did it happen in the end? How did I actually pop the question, and make vows to myself?
I got engaged spontaneously at a gas station on the way back from my 40th birthday hot springs trip to the desert. I had been shy to ask for attention about the self-wedding during that birthday weekend because it was a joint birthday with two friends. I didn’t want to make it all about me, but then I fell silent, moody and sullen in the car, because actually I did want attention.
On the drive out of the desert I finally got up my courage and asked my friends Liz, Sonya, and Jenny for help. We had stopped at a gas station selling Elvis paraphernalia, stuffed animals and jewelry. That’s where I broke down and told them why I had gotten silent in the car. They were enthusiastic about helping me. I just had to ask for help.
We found the perfect charm necklace with two charms: love and Alexandra (my formal name) and did a photo shoot outside the gas station in front of a red and yellow sign for “Premium Gasoline.” I was engaged, and it was just my style, spontaneous. Kind of like eloping with myself—and three friends.
Getting over my cold feet
Nine months later I got married in Buenos Aires. My Colombian friend Alexandra helped me plan the event. I very much needed her as wedding planner to move the process along. I was starting to procrastinate. Ale and I chose a date, June 15, and a place, the Japanese Gardens in Buenos Aires. The guest list: short. Me, Ale and our close friend Nele. (We all met through a seminar called psicotango, which is all about finding yourself through tango.)
The night before Ale came over to help me pick out the outfit. The forecast predicted cool and drizzle. I didn’t want to be cold at my own self-wedding. We settled on my favorite red pants, a blue tank top and black sweater with a lace back. Red pants make me feel like a superhero. A necklace that belonged to the woman I was subletting from—something borrowed! The shoes and tank top: something blue.
“It’s your last night as a single woman,” Ale told me, as she put on her jacket to leave. “Take a bath, light candles, pamper yourself.” I took a bath by candlelight after she left, something I had never done in my life. It’s hard to describe the happiness of that night. It was a little like being a kid on Christmas Eve, the feeling that something very special was going to happen the next day.
When Ale showed up at my apartment the next morning we both felt giddy. We walked over together to meet Nele.
On the way to the Japanese Gardens
My plan for the ritual was simple. I would say something, ask each of my friends to offer a reflection, and then read my vows. Thus began the ceremony, up on the balcony of the sushi restaurant next to the Japanese Gardens so we would be away from the crowds.
“Today I am here with two of my best friends in the world to marry myself.” I explained at the beginning of my ceremony at noon on the balcony of a sushi restaurant so we would be away from the crowds. “By marrying myself, I marry my light and my dark. I bring together all parts of myself, including the parts I do not find easy: my insecurities, anger, and moodiness.”
Ale spoke, “The decision to marry yourself is to become conscious of who you are and accept yourself. When I married myself, I had a symbol, and I want you to have a symbol too. I bought this ring for you a long time ago. I liked it so much I thought I might keep it. I didn’t imagine that I would give it to you as a symbol from one woman who married herself to another.”
Ale handed me a black, brown and red ring she had bought in Colombia. I almost cried. We had unexpectedly created a new ritual: a self-married woman giving another woman a ring.
Putting on the ring
I read my vows. There were 18 of them. I’ve never particularly had the ability to edit myself when I get going. Here were three of them: “I vow to create intimacy in my life by making myself vulnerable, revealing how I really feel.” “I vow to fall in love with others’ imperfections as I fall in love with my own.” “I vow to see myself as beautiful.”
Post-wedding photos with Nele and Ale
Here is the video where you can see my ceremony:
As we walked home, Ale said, “Your ceremony reminded me of how I felt when I married myself, a happy place, Que lindo, How nice, I don’t have to be with a man to make myself happy.” I could tell Ale and Nele got a sympathetic high from my own ritual.
She also joked, “I’ve already forgotten my anniversary, but that’s okay. Self-marriage is like marriage, you forget your anniversary, you lose your ring. But the important thing is we know we are married.”
How is the marriage going? Are we happy together?
A lot of people will comment “how sad” when they encounter self-marriage. I suppose they are saying: “How sad these women have not found men to marry.” Or society is breaking down. Maybe they are thinking we are narcissistic, or any of the other knee-jerk responses people have to self-marriage. Do I sometimes feel sad because I’m single? Sometimes. Do I feel sad about having married myself? Never. My self-wedding was one of the best days of my life.
What difference does it make that I’ve married myself? It’s now been three years so I have plenty of time to reflect on whether this made any difference in my life. First the truth. I didn’t go on a honeymoon. I lost my wedding ring and the engagement necklace. I do not have wedding photos of myself splattered around my apartment.
Self-marriage is not legal. I don’t get any tax benefits from the state, and being married to myself doesn’t give me companionship: someone to have sex with, help me when I’m sick or talk to when I’m lonely.
Marrying myself also did not turn me into a Buddha who embodies perfect self-care and perpetual self-compassion.
Clearly, it’s not as if self-marriage is the end point.
But self-marriage has changed me. There’s no doubt in my mind about that. Marrying myself was a moment in time when I took a stand for my worthiness as a human being. When you marry yourself, you are saying, I am worthy of being married to—by myself or anyone else. The symbols from the ritual—the ring and engagement necklace—have consistently grounded me, especially in moments when I have felt shaky (like a break-up). Wearing my replacement ring gives me the same feeling of calm that the first one did. The self-marriage ring disrupts the idea that you can only be happy when you are married.
The ritual has affected me in many ways. The most profound has to do with the depth of relationship I’ve been able to have with another person. My boyfriend after the self-marriage was the first one who knew that I had a trauma of childhood sexual abuse–and that it still affected me as an adult. I was never able to even contemplate sharing that part of my life story with a partner before.
In the past when I would have reactions to conflict and criticism—some might say overreactions, and men would leave me. They would find me difficult. Ben was the first boyfriend who knew about my story, and therefore he could love and understand me. I had to be comfortable enough with sharing my story for that depth of connection to be possible. I had to work through that shame to get to self-acceptance. My self-marriage was a milestone in that process. When I told him my story I was upholding my vows to myself.
That man and I are no longer together, but it was the most loving relationship I have been in.
At the moment, I am dating. As I said, self-marriage, for me, was never about the commitment to be single. It’s about a commitment to self-love. I am infinitely aware that when I date and find someone that I like a lot of my shit comes up: my fears of abandonment, intimacy, commitment. The poet Adrienne Rich nails it here for me. Getting to love, and not infatuation, is no small thing: “An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love’ is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.”
Love, actually, is not for the faint of heart. The act of laying ourselves bare to another human being, to be seen for all of who we are, lovely and not obviously lovely, tests us. We can have anxiety attacks, sabotage relationships, or give up. Self-marriage helps me hold my own heart. My ring is a reminder: Of course I am lovable, I love myself.
Sasha Cagen is the author of Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics. She lives in Buenos Aires, where she sometimes help women marry themselves (remotely or in person) and teaches tango in 7-day tango holidays that bring together women and use tango as a metaphor for life and relationships. She is at work on a memoir called Wet, a journey of healing through sensuality in South America that goes even further deeper into these topics of shame, self-love, relationships and healing.
Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again? “Deathly” Aimee Mann
I left a first date feeling entirely uncertain, excited and unsettled. Then, he didn’t call. I had to deal with my feelings for two days afterward. Two days of hell and then I moved on! I used all the tools at my disposal to deal with those feelings, and I thought I would share them with you who are dating. But first—something poetic.
I’ve always thought the above lyric from Aimee Mann perfectly expresses the complicated anxiety of meeting—and actually really liking—someone on a first date. I’m so glad we met, and would you object to never seeing each other again?
Aimee Mann suggests in the song that “I can’t afford to / Climb aboard you / No one’s got that much ego to spend.” She doesn’t want someone to “work their stuff” on her because she has “troubles enough.” Even if the other person is not working their stuff on you, how do you live through the process of dating and getting to know someone–and actually liking them–without going through a roller coaster of emotion? Does he like me? Do I like him? Will he call? Text? Should I?
In other words, how is it possible to be more chill and meditative about this if you get invested in someone you like? Is that even possible?
When I was younger I got the impression from romantic comedies that beginning a relationship with someone was fun. But what those movies left out was the awkward process of discerning how you felt and how the other person felt about you, whether you are in the same place with the same desires and emotional availability for a relationship.
Dating requires some courage: Opening up is always a risk. Why would you want to be hurt when you’re sailing along in your cool-with-being-single-life? The price of entry to go for deeper connection is walking through this valley of making yourself vulnerable. I don’t mean just in romantic relationships either, but also with friendships and family too.
Some people say, “Dating is fun!” Dating can definitely be fun. But we are also human beings with hearts that have a history. Dating can also trigger deep issues from childhood and various aspects of your history, formative first love relationships, breakups and so on.
It’s never more fearsome than when you actually like someone. My friend Jenny sent me a text recently giving me some encouragement after a date, “It’s OK to enjoy those crush feelings. Crushes can bring a feeling of lightness and joy.” That’s true. It’s great if you can let go of the anxiety enough to enjoy the crush.
Some people take dating lightly, and that’s great. But for those of us who find dating challenging, who have gone on zillions of dates and been through what Jody Day over at Gateway Women called the “endless hope/despair cycle of Internet dating” I want to share with you what I have learned about managing the anxiety of dating.
The anxiety may not go away entirely but it can be more contained so we can enjoy more of the lightness and joy that go along with crushes and exciting dates.
Accept your emotions. Dating will bring up emotions. Accept them: excitement, hope, disappointment, fear of rejection and despair. Just because you are aware of your feelings it doesn’t mean you won’t have them. If you have a phobia of birds for example it doesn’t mean your phobia will go away when you see a cluster of pigeons by your door. (That was my big fear for a while.) Maybe you can distract yourself but don’t beat yourself up for having the feelings. Why are you doing this? You’re being brave and going for a deeper connection.
Express your emotions—to yourself or a friend. I find this Milagrows list-making practice can be helpful to externalize the feelings and let them be witnessed. The milagrows practice, as I call it, is a way of writing a list where you note your feelings, especially the ones you are not grateful for, and bless them with gratitude. Writing a milagrows list helps me move through a tough patch more quickly. You could even say writing this list helps you metabolize negative emotions. Talking to a sympathetic friend who gets that dating is not always easy is helpful too. Dating can bring up just as many emotional challenges as a marriage.
Separate these emotions from the person you have just met. Dating can bring up a great longing. They tell you, don’t project when you date, but come on. If you meet someone you like the imagination may go wild with the future you envision, and if it doesn’t work out, it’s a great fall from grace. Disappointment is natural but don’t let the disappointment or other negative feelings become global. In other words, this is disappointment about one man and not all men, one women and not all women. Separate those emotions and longings from the person, because you don’t really know the person yet and whether they would be a good person for you to be in a relationship with anyway.
Which brings us to: Don’t let all your emotions go into the gutter. It’s very easy to let a feeling of rejection from one person spin into, Love never works for me or It’s never going to work out. Believe me, I’ve done that too! Most “never” statements will not hold up to scrutiny when you question them.
It’s crucial to separate disappointment about a particular person (whom you did not know all that well anyway) from disappointment about love in general. Become more specific with your thoughts and feelings. Maybe it doesn’t work out with this particular person because he or she doesn’t want a relationship right now. One dating disappointment doesn’t predict the future.
You didn’t do anything wrong. You can’t make someone like you. Tons of dating gurus out there tell you how to make yourself irresistible to men (Chistian Carter, Rori Rayes, etc. etc.) or how to pick up women, and if you read these people, you think, Oh fuck, I did x, y, z wrong. I won’t say there is nothing of value to be gained from dating gurus, but in the end, if you are manipulating someone to like you in the beginning, they don’t know you. That’s no foundation for a relationship. The reasons that someone likes you or doesn’t like you are ones that you really can’t know. They may like you for things you have never seen in yourself and are not aware of. Give yourself a break. You did nothing wrong.
Time is the ultimate test. You can’t know that much about anyone from one encounter anyway. A date full of chemistry may lead somewhere or nowhere. I am suspicious of the Hell Yes or No thing that people spread as a meme on the Internet–according to this meme, you should only do things that are a Hell Yes. In my experience, hell yesses sometimes fizzle and ambiguous connections may grow. People reveal themselves to you as you get to know them and chemistry alone does not make a relationship. People surprise us, and it takes time to know them. Character and important qualities like kindness and judgment will show up with time. Two-date rule? Five date rules? I don’t have any rules and I won’t suggest any but I am increasingly convinced that first dates are not that revealing and nothing happens that fast. People can be more fully themselves when they feel comfortable with you over time.
Just keep going. Almost every day I am more convinced that success in all aspects of life is about persistence. Take care of your heart and keep on trucking. And if you want help along the path, check out what I offer here.
Hey, I'm Sasha Cagen. I'm the author of Quirkyalone + To-Do List, the founder of the quirkyalone movement, and a coach for women who provides a creative, action-oriented alternative to therapy. I live in Buenos Aires where I teach tango as a metaphor in a 7-day Tango Holiday in Buenos Aires.
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Sasha Cagen is the author of the cult favorite Quirkyalone: A Manifesto for Uncompromising Romantics and To-Do List: From Buying Milk to Finding a Soul Mate, What Our Lists Reveal About Us. In her well-loved newsletter, Sasha is the voice for people who don't want to settle--in any area of life.
In her coaching practice, Sasha helps smart, successful women get clear on what they want and go for it. Sasha also uses tango as a tool in her coaching practice to help women reconnect with their sensuality and confidence.
A memoirist and a tanguera, she's passionate about using writing, storytelling and tango in her transformative work with women.